Censorship, trigger warnings and “free speech”: the National Union of Students meets

Bookmark and Share Education | Matthew Lesh
The Spectator Australia 13th December, 2016

This week the rabble that is the National Union of Students will hold their annual National Conference in Geelong at Deakin University.

The conference, attended by "delegates" often elected by less than five percent of the student population, is dominated by a mixture of Labor factions, and further left independents such as the Grassroots left and Socialist Alternative. It is a key student political training ground, with many prominent members moving into Labor politics, including former PM Julia Gillard.

Scrutiny is extremely difficult. Most documents are held in secret, processes are behind closed doors, minutes are not published, and there is a formal ban on student media recording.

The conference book, usually released weeks beforehand, has just been distributed at the last minute. And it's filled with the usual list of bizarre ideas and extreme politics. There are proposals to renationalise railways, they describe former PM John Howard as a war criminal, and call Australia "a racist disgrace".

However, of particular interest, are the blatant attacks on freedom of speech by the latest generation of student politicians.

In one policy, proposed by members of the Labor Left faction, there is a call for protests against prominent "conservative" figures, and to oppose their speaking on campus. So much for a diversity of ideas, and free intellectual inquiry. Rather than challenge ideas with which they disagree, they want to stop them speaking altogether. The radical student left used to support free speech - not anymore!

Another policy, put forward by the national welfare officer, calls for the introduction of "inherent requirements" on courses, another form of trigger warnings against "distressing content". As I have previously written for The Spectator, such warnings damage free intellectual exploration of ideas, and defeat the entire purpose of higher education: to challenge, not coddle, students.

A policy about "recognising our political enemies" formally "acknowledges that Liberals have no place in the NUS". It attacks me personally for having stood up to their censorship of a Christopher Pyne book launch in 2015 - which I wrote about in my debut in the Specie. In effect, the NUS is setting itself up to fail to represent the many thousands of students who ascribe to a different political viewpoint than their own.

In the same document there's at least some hope - a very agreeable policy on supporting free speech on campus. The motion condemns universities and student unions that prevent the distributing of political material and supports the right of political clubs to affiliate on campus. However, the motion is, ironically, proposed by individuals who appear to be members of the Socialist Alternative - the very folk who regularly attempt to shut down events with speakers with whom they disagree. It seems they support freedom of speech for themselves, but not for everyone else.

I am also informed that of the 26 motions formally submitted by Liberal-aligned delegates, legitimately elected at their respective universities, just three have made it into the policy book. There has been a clear attempt to censor motions from those with whom the NUS disagree. These include motions about youth unemployment, supporting engagement between industry and higher education, and, ironically, motions supporting campus freedom of speech.

Sadly, a once radical student organisation has succumbed to the worst of the modern campus left: censoring those with whom they disagree in the name of making students feel comfortable. The coddling of young minds continues.